This whole book of lessons continually reveals new chapters,even after I think the end is sure to be on the next page. I keep studying, even though I really am not certain whether these lessons will amount to success in the end, or end with crushing disappointment. I keep following because there is still hope in me that, miraculously, I will finish this thing.
Let’s rewind a bit. The past several weeks have seen me struggle with mental and physical anguish on my bike, sometimes plowing through, and sometimes throwing in the towel, feeling defeated and completely crushed. I’m still trying to get a handle on why I am unable to handle the pains associated with cycling, and why I keep quitting. Quitting is a habit, just like any other. If you set your mind to, “If I feel bad, I can just bail out,” then, whenever you are feeling any kind of pain, the mind has a way of worming out of situations that get mentally and emotionally challenging.
I quit again last weekend, at Mile 70 of our 80-Mile Vineman training weekend in Sonoma. It was 102 degrees of dry, dry heat. We had splashed through our 2+ mile practice swim in the lake, and proceeded to spin along the race course route. The race course was spectacular. Initially, I tried to focus on keeping my pace up, staying with the others for a little while, until, as always happens, they disappeared from view, and I was out on the course alone with my thoughts.
For a good while, things were going okay. I had a shifting epiphany when Coach Riz told me to “click up one gear, get to the speed you want, and then click back down and keep a high cadence to maintain it.” Oh Em Gee. All of this time I had been shifting up and up and up to get a faster pace, but then burning my legs out in the high gears trying to maintain the cadence. I began flying along the road at paces I had never before been able to maintain for sustained periods. I began to think, “Wow! I could actually finish this race!”
Around Mile 40 I started feeling bloated, so much so that the front of my stomach started to hurt as the waist of my otherwise stretchy and loose Tri shorts started to dig in. I struggled fiercely climbing Chalk Hill, the one Cat 5 climb of the whole race, and not something that I hadn’t ever done before. By the time I got to a stop sign after Chalk, I started feeling light-headed and dizzy. The sun toasted overhead. Coach Amy rode up and advised me to stand in the shade awhile to regain my composure and cool off.
When I finally got going again, I began to think about how long this was taking me, and how every time I stopped, I added more time to my overall ride. I thought about how everyone would have to wait for me to finish, and how I would feel like a loser, again. My legs were getting weaker and weaker, even though I was taking in calories and electrolytes. My stomach was feeling pretty gross. My feet both experienced “hot foot” from swelling in my shoes, which was incredibly painful.
I pushed on, feebly struggling to maintain a pace of 10-13 mph. I started to panic, get upset. I asked out loud, over and over, “Why can’t I move?!?” I begin to grunt and cry and throw a tantrum at my feeble legs, whose hamstrings screamed for mercy. Then, the headwinds hit. I told myself, “You are not quitting!” It took everything I had to press on with my weak, weak failing legs.
Finally, at Mile 70, after hyperventilating and sobbing some more, I stopped at a stop sign. The light-headed ness has returned. I thought, “There is no way I can climb up Chalk Hill again.” I could barely cycle on the flat, how was I going to get up Chalk Hill?
Our roving SAG person caught up with me and asked if I needed help. She told me that she could pick me up and I conceded. I gave up. Not finishing again made me feel like more of a loser than if I’d been the last finisher.
According to Coach Jason, my nutrition had stopped absorbing (hence the bloat), despite my efforts to fuel it. That would make sense as to why my legs quit on me. Still, I felt like a wussy, a worthless DNFer who just wasn’t as good as everyone else.
I redeemed myself a little on the next day’s 18-mile run, finishing before a good number of my teammates, even though I still wasn’t feeling very strong. Still, the weekend left me a bit unsettled.
Coach Amy called me midweek to chat about my struggles. We talked about pain and nutrition and getting through the “dark” places during the ride. We talked about my specific struggles and my self doubt. In the end, we came up with a new nutrition plan and an assignment for next week’s ride:
“It s a shorter ride this week, I want you to just have fun on the bike. Don’t worry about your time or what anyone else is doing, just go out there and look at the scenery and enjoy your ride.”
It sounded simple enough, but I knew that it came with its own challenges for me. Those crushing moments when the pack pulls away from me, those times when I’m struggling up a hill or feeling pain in my feet, all were obstacles I saw that could thwart me from my purpose. Still, challenge accepted.
Our Vineman training group, whittled down to just 12 members, started off in a small pack. Per usual, the pack kept a starting pace of over 20 mph. I know this because I was going 18-19 mph and they pulled away from me and disappeared quickly. Instead of letting it become a source of anxiety, I focused on my own pacing and cadence, however slow, because, as Coach Quinton said once, “There is nobody (besides the elites) who finishes an Ironman bike fast.”
One of my assets as a runner is that, even though I’m not super fast, I am solid, and fairly good at pacing myself. I decided that I was going to attempt to translate those skills over to the bike, assuming that a solid overall pace would be about 15mph, including all climbs and descents. Things were looking pretty good. I was cruising along at about 16-18mph on the flats, using Riz’s click up method. Then, I heard a bizarre clicking.
I stopped my bike and checked my cadence sensor. Things appeared normal there. Then, I noticed the problem: a flat tire. Not only did I have a flat, but a piece of metal was jammed into my tire, piercing the tube. Really?!? Someone out there was really trying to make it so that my ride was the least amount of fun imaginable. After struggling for several minutes to pull the metal out, I finally dislodged it, grabbed my one tube and removed my new Gatorskin from the wheel.
What seemed like lots of struggling and many minutes later, I finally got back on the road, determined to enjoy the ride. Coach Emily was waiting for me at Mulholland Canyon. I told her what happened, and we proceeded to climb up. Suddenly my ride got very bouncy. We pulled over to the side of the road and, sure enough, I was going flat again, Huzzah.
Emily helped me to pump up my bike and we got back on the road, only to be stopped again shortly thereafter because, you guessed it, the tire had gone flat again. With no spare tube, my only option was to call SAG. Emily waited with me for over 20 minutes, when SAG pulled up with a replacement wheel, and I was good to go.
Was I nervous about being so far behind my group? Sure I was, but at this point it didn’t really matter, so I tried to just enjoy the ride. Having Coach Emily to talk to generally helped things, on top of the expansive views during the very long, sustained climb up Mulholland.
As we descended down a very technical hill, I realized how far I’d come, how much more in control of my bike that I felt, in spite of being a newb. Near the bottom of the descent, we encountered a hidden horsey wonderland, with Shetland ponies and well-groomed horses in pastures, in some of the Valley’s rare shady spots. I felt calm, relaxed, joyful here, something that rarely came over me on the bike.
I was in such a state of zen, I didn’t even freak out when I saw a live baby rattler on the road while we were encountering some rolling canyon hills. When Coach Emily left me on my own at mile 27 or so to finish the ride, I was still enjoying myself, playing with various gears and speeds on the bike.
The loop was 31 miles,ending at the start, but we were required to do a total of 40, which meant an additional out and back. I could have cheated, said, “Eh, 31 miles is good enough after all I dealt with today,” but I was determined to finish what I set out to do.
The out and back was relatively flat, so I played with my gears and effort level, enjoying the various challenges, and the fact that I felt relatively fresh after a 40-miler. When I finished, I rolled in feeling like I had accomplished some sort of personal victory. I did what I set out to do, in spite of the challenges.
These days, I’ll take my wins however they come.